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Making a Difference: Richard Taylor

Writing history

When you say Richard Taylor lives and breathes history, it’s not just one of those amusing exaggerations. For this author and professor — who admits he’d be more comfortable in the 19th century than our own — it’s the literal truth.

“I was so happy to see Kentucky Collectibles come along as a local version of Antiques Roadshow. It has localized that program, localized history, and made it accessible to everyone,” said the former Kentucky Poet Laureate, who’s written a historical novel and four other books on Kentucky history.

Whether he’s writing poetry or a history of nearby Elkhorn Creek, Taylor can often be found in either his antebellum home or in downtown Frankfort at Poor Richard’s Books, which he and his wife, Lizz, own. In either place, Kentucky’s history imbues every room, nook, and cranny.

So it’s no surprise that Taylor brought an astounding 150-year-old find last year to KET’s Kentucky Collectibles.

“I am not sure I actually said ‘Eureka!’ when I saw it, but I certainly thought it,” Taylor recalled thinking when he examined one of thousands of books he’d acquired near Hanover, Ind.

The book that so excited Taylor was the Civil War diary of physician A. Alonzo Morrison, begun on Nov. 26, 1863.

“It’s one of a kind. Does it have any real value? No — but it is priceless in that it contributes to our history in a unique way,” he said.

Filled with elegant, 19th-century script, the diary is primarily a catalog of the soldiers, both Union and Confederate, that Dr. Morrison treated. He served in Louisville as well as at the prison at Rock Island, Ill.

But there also are fascinating glimpses into Civil War-era life, including gatherings and parties at familiar places such as the Galt House (which preceded the current Louisville hotel) and others.

“I really wish there were more entries like this; a lot of it is clinical and dispassionate,” Taylor said. “It’s a side of the war you don’t really see.”

Later, serving at Madison General Hospital in Indiana, the doctor noted the parade held in celebration of the Union victory at Richmond, Va., — and a first-person account of the news of April 14, 1865:

In the morning lightning transmitted over the wires from Washington that our beloved president was dead! Abraham Lincoln had fallen by the hand of the assassin at Ford’s Theatre.

He was shot by a pistol ball while in his private box with his wife and Major —. John Wilkes Booth entered the box at nine and a half PM and committed the terrible tragedy, then jumped upon the stage and made his escape from the back door. This terrible news struck the whole country with terror.

“Behind that is a person feeling and sensing history,” Taylor observed. “It’s a window into what people were saying at the time. He obviously was a very intelligent and sensitive man. It’s really fascinating.”

Taylor said that presenting the people behind history is just one of the aspects of Kentucky Collectibles and other history-related programs on KET that he appreciates.

“There’s always a human approach to history. We see a history that shows us its pimples, of which there are many. And KET is the primary organ by which we honor who we are and what our past is,” he said.

“Kentucky possesses a kind of homogeneity that you don’t find everywhere. There is a lot of feeling about our colorful and often tragic past. Yet we possess the resources and the potential to be our best selves. KET is an instrument by which Kentucky can realize that potential.”